There’s a buzz emanating from UNCW’s creative writing department these days. The reason: a visit from Meg Day. The poet, who became a small celebrity among students during last year’s Writers’ Week, and who uses “they/them” pronouns, is back in town to lead a four-week graduate poetry class. They’ll read from their work at UNCW’s Kenan Hall on Thursday night.
Currently on sabbatical from their full-time teaching position at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, Day is part of a group of exciting new poets working to challenge the genre’s stuffy status quo—or, as Day put it in a lecture last week, to “queer poetics.” A member of the trans community, Day often writes about the liminal nature of bodies. (As an example of their range, Day’s work has been published in both top literary journals and on ESPN.com.) And as a deaf poet—an American Sign Language interpreter will be present Thursday night—Day also addresses issues of access and translation.
UNCW Creative Writing MFA coordinator Melissa Crowe knew she wanted Day to join the school as a visiting writer the moment they met two years ago. “Meg’s work is somehow both delicate and explosive, intricately made and politically bold,” Crowe says. “I knew that a sustained encounter with Meg in the classroom would make a difference in the way our students operate as writers and as people. What more can we want for our students?
On Thursday, Day will read from their 2014 collection “Last Psalm at Sea Level,” which won the Barrow Street Poetry Prize and the Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Award. Despite the book’s success, Day insists it’s teaching that fuels their passion.
Asked what their graduate poetry students will be studying this semester, Day replied, “Rapture. We’re investing time together in the study of rapture, of bliss, of euphoria’s rhetorical anatomy.”
encore caught up with Day over email last week.
encore (e): Wilmington is a town with a growing progressive voice, but it’s also one with an ugly history of violence against minority groups. What made you want to take this appointment?
Meg Day (MD): I kind of love the aggression of this question; it spurs in me many responses at once. I accepted the invitation to teach here in large part because of my experience at Writers’ Week in 2018. UNCW’s MFA students in creative writing have a rare generosity of spirit to them and the way I was welcomed as a visitor felt different than other MFAs I’ve popped into. Returning to these students and the conversations we began appealed greatly to me. What’s more, Professor Melissa Crowe and Megan Hubbard have so enthusiastically streamlined the process—providing access, finding housing—that the typical hesitations seemed minor. I’m so grateful to them; such tending permitted me to focus on developing a course about which I was really passionate. UNCW also pays its poets well. That can’t be underestimated.
But since you brought it up, Wilmington’s violence is hardly unique. I’ve not spent much time here, but from what I’ve experienced, your city is like most American cities I’ve lived in or traveled through: largely inaccessible, racially homogenous, and wild with misogyny and transphobia. I travel a lot as a poet and I often feel that my safety and well-being is an afterthought (or not-thought) to the institutions that welcome me; academia tends to perpetuate an illusion of progressive protection, as if the existence of gender studies or disability studies prevents students or faculty or community members from committing active harm.
My home institution is no exception: I teach at a historically PWI [predominantly white institution] in rural Amish country, and while we are absolutely invested in the generic safety of our visitors, we rarely have candid, plain-spoken conversations about what is required of us as hosts when we invite folks of color or queer or trans or disabled visitors to our campus and our town. Are we asking them to risk their safety? How are we compensating them for these risks? How are we anticipating and supporting them?
I often feel I am asked to risk my safety as a visiting poet and I’m a white kid with various privileges that could be, and have been, exit strategies from alarming scenarios. If it is that we expect poets to arrive willing and ready to shoulder the labor the overwhelmingly non-disabled, cishet [cisgender and heterosexual], white faculty is not equipped to do—often for very little money—we should be very concerned with how it is we are protecting and sustaining them.
I think it’s rare to have a team like UNCW’s creative writing program has, and I don’t think I would be having such a steady, supported and safe experience here without them.
e: At Writers’ Week last year, I recall you saying you felt built for teaching. What do you mean? What makes you want to teach?
MD: Most of us are very good at things we don’t necessarily want to do—or alternately feel passionately about things in which we have no skill. For me, there’s a lot of power in mastery and pleasure: Teaching provides immense pleasure and allows me to flex my talents toward mastery. There are some ways teaching feels very natural to me, very intuitive; in other ways it requires rigor and effort that is equally satisfying. I don’t want to undersell the importance of choice. I choose it. Again and again, I choose it. I choose it because it’s one of the most effective kinds of activism, among the most enduring forms of empowerment. I take it very seriously. It’s incredibly fun.
e: Where did your fascination with sound begin? How did it develop?
MD: Sound is an invention of the hearing. Because hearing people hold systemic, hegemonic power, and there’s a sociocultural and medicalized hierarchy surrounding audiological access, the obsession seems compulsory and rooted in oppression. Sometimes I feel fascinated by sound, but lately I’ve been thinking it would be nice to have a choice.
e: Where do you feel most at home?
MD: You know, my beloved asked me a version of this question recently and I started thinking instantly of geography, of places I’ve lived, the people I love. I like that answer, but I think it’s the product of some kind of acculturation or desire to respond, for once, without disclaimer. Maybe I like the safety of an answer that doesn’t rely so heavily on other people, but the truth is that I probably feel most at home in a classroom. I miss it when I’m away from it and even when it’s difficult or rife with failure—which it often and necessarily is—I can’t really imagine a place I’d rather be.
e: You’ve spoken in interviews about being wary of the way in which poems are read as factual. Do you still worry about that?
MD: I worry, in general, for people who go to poems seeking facts, yes. It’s a tricky business. Poems are often factual, sure; they integrate a variety of truths and regularly land in the realm of literal possibility. But truth isn’t fact isn’t possibility and thank goodness. Factual seems like such a low bar. It ropes in the morality of honesty, which annoys me. Sometimes poems portend to explain our experience as humans; I agree that’s incredibly valuable and often political, and sometimes we should even believe them. But a poem can make a lot of kinds of sense: intuitive, semantic, projective, visceral and so on. They are largely emotional educators and I like them specifically for this reason. I like that they involve irreducible specificity (of writer, of reader), and that it means we’ll never run out of reasons or ways to make them.
I worry that allying fact and experience reduces nuance or eliminates intersectionality; it seems like an age-old tactic used to tokenize and oppress. How many times has a well-meaning person told me they didn’t have the experience I’m having, so it must be that I’m—what? Wrong? A liar? Unlucky? Systemically oppressed in ways they refuse to acknowledge or become accountable for?
I think sometimes that we are dangerously and aggressively optimistic about the state of the world and at other times we’re just clamoring to have our experiences validated. Asking, in a poem no less, for all of it to be factual—a dubious descriptor to begin with when we know the power of metaphor—seems like a silly and boring pursuit. This doesn’t remove the likelihood—the trend, in fact—of poets abusing the flexibility of their form to appropriate and de-politicize experiences not their own. The question of representation is far more worthy of our community’s time.
e: How much, if any, hesitancy do you have about being defined solely by certain characteristics of your identity (i.e. being pigeonholed as only a “deaf poet” or a “queer poet”)?
MD: These things don’t concern me. At least not in the way I think you intend? Readers who seek to categorize us in this way are often doing so from a place of privilege and don’t understand they can’t isolate our identities for their own purposes or fill a systemic hole with our temporary presence. I’m very proud to be queer and trans and deaf. I remain queer and trans and deaf even if I appear in an anthology for disabled poets or am hired to provide a workshop for queer youth. My work is not only queer or only trans or only deaf. Multiply marginalized writers have way too much to contend with to be worried about whether or not someone is foolish enough to try to reduce our work.
In a professional sense, I’ve come to use these designations as a way to gather intel on what it is I can expect from an institution or a publication. No one trains you for this kind of thing and there’s so little mentorship around it. If I’m marketed as a queer poet, I can often expect they have not thought ahead about access, interpreters, captioning. If I’m marketed as a deaf poet, I can often expect pronouns and bathrooms and public safety are not on anyone’s mind. If I’m marketed as both, ironically, I can bet that these identities were copy-pasted from my bio and no one’s thought at all about what might need follow-up.
I veer, politically, from tokenization, but struggle regularly with the burden of representation and the onus of educating. When something violent happens on a visit or in a publication, do I comment on the ableism or the transphobia first? Can I, as a queer and trans and deaf poet submit to publications that are queer-celebratory but print ableist poems? These are much more important questions for me than whether or not I’ve been pigeon-holed.
e: Your poems have the ability to inspire a wide range of emotions, including anger. I’m thinking specifically about “Batter My Heart, Transgender’d God” from “Last Psalm at Sea Level.” How do you respond to that anger? Do you see it as a sign of success? Does it ever create a need for you to unplug from your readership?
MD: My sponsor likes to tell me that at the root of most anger is, very simply, fear. I am attracted to the idea that poems make us afraid, or expose us to known and unknown fears. It seems fitting that guided, focused examination—as in a poem—would reveal details or triggers or even whole experiences that might upset our understanding of ourselves or the world. Learning seems at the very least a quietly violent event—it disrupts and derails and remakes us anew. That we would learn something from a poem seem a high honor and a valuable pursuit.
I’m still (and maybe always will be) processing the kinds of hate mail I receive as a poet. It was never a thing I anticipated would be a part of the job? We’re always touting the death of poetry, yet people are obviously reading. I’ve learned a lot from them about power and privilege and the use of anonymity, the internet, and religion in rhetoric that is meant to hurt. At times it’s made me very afraid. When you publish a poem and then strangers write to you telling you to kill yourself, that they want to kill you, it can feel difficult to stay open to the idea of, say, a public reading, a classroom, a meet-up with a student you’ve never met. I’m not alone; this isn’t uncommon. I’ve spoken to many, many poets who receive threats, are stalked, suffer verbal, emotional, physical, and psychological violations for their work. Is it me? The poem?
I wish we talked more openly about the abuse we endure, the fears we inherit and share. I think there’s a lot of potential in communicating openly about the power of language, especially in a time like this.
e: What are you working on now?
MD: I just wrapped a big project, a labor of activism and love: “Laura Hershey: The Life and Work of an American Master.” That feels huge and wonderful. I’m so glad it’s in the world and I’m grateful to my co-editor, Niki Herd and the contributors: Constance Merritt, Eli Clare, Declan Gould, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Our queer crip elder, poet and activist Laura Hershey, deserves this and so much more. But I feel like the answer everyone wants is that I’m writing my second book right now. It’s true, I am. The poems come slowly and often hurt. I feel great about it. I’d like to not feel so rushed.